Shopping carts have been hailed as one of the brightest innovations of the 20th century. The carts' usefulness has dramatically changed retail marketing since the 1930s -- but these ubiquitous carts also have been branded as rolling examples of urban blight.
The city of Merced passed a shopping cart ordinance five years ago, but these regulations haven't solved the problem -- dozens of carts still are abandoned on local streets each day, keeping several cart retrieval services and store employees hopping to round them up.
Abandoned shopping carts are concentrated on Loughborough Drive and Meadows Avenue areas in North Merced, but some also can be found in other parts of town. It's believed many of the people commandeering shopping carts are area apartment dwellers with limited income who don't have their own transportation or other means to haul groceries home.
Merced City Council member Jim Sanders was in on the lengthy process of drafting the 2003 shopping cart ordinance. He estimates that the ordinance has been about 60 percent successful. The problem isn't as bad as it used to be but it isn't going away.
"It's visual blight, one of the things that calls attention to the fact that some don't treat the community with any kind of respect," Sanders said. "The ordinance may need to be revisited; lately they seem to be left around again."
The city is intensifying its efforts to work with store owners to see that they keep a closer watch on shopping carts. Greg McSwain, a city code enforcement specialist, is meeting with grocery store managers to ramp up compliance -- he regularly tags and photographs abandoned carts before sending stores notices to pick them up.
Several bright spots appear on the horizon. One Merced store deploys a shuttle to take its paying customers home; two other retailers have unveiled a system that disables cart wheels when they leave store property. Another store chain features specialists who provide carryout services to customers, returning to the store with the now-empty cart.
McSwain said the peak period when shopping carts are abandoned is between the first and 10th of the month. Many of the abandoned carts are from Food 4 Less, 99 Cents Only and Save Mart stores. He reckons about half the people taking them "just don't care" and know that taking the carts is only a misdemeanor.
Chief Deputy City Attorney Jeanne Schechter said the shopping cart ordinance has been "somewhat effective" and people can be prosecuted for taking them from stores. In 2003, 35 citations were issued for stealing carts, followed by 21 each in 2004 and 2005, 28 in 2006 and seven last year. So far this year three such tickets have been issued.
Schechter said the city goes to court most of the time on these citations; fines range from $50 to $100 each.
Bob Acker, director of facilities and streams for the Merced Irrigation District, said MID employees pull "lots" of carts out of district canals and laterals. Between 50 and 60 carts are retrieved from creeks and canals each year, and 30 carts now are languishing in their storage yard, most destined for the dump, since they're dirty or covered with moss.
"It's a big nuisance for us," Acker said.
What's a nuisance for MID and city workers can be an expensive proposition for stores. Shopping carts cost $100 to $150 each to replace. Dave Reid, executive vice president of Burbank-based California Shopping Cart Retrieval Corp., said stores are charged $2 or $3 for each cart returned to the store, depending on volume.
Reid said a company employee living in Madera makes the daily rounds of Madera, Chowchilla, Merced, Atwater and Turlock, picking up carts. He probably retrieves between a dozen and 20 carts a day from Merced.
Reid said his company is expanding its services as fast as it can. The company's mission is to get carts off the street as quickly as possible. His company serves the three Save Marts in Merced and is in discussion to serve other local grocery and drug retailers.
City spokesman Mike Conway said the city does quarterly sweeps of Bear Creek. During the last such effort in December, 35 to 40 shopping carts were pulled from the creek. The number of carts fished from the creek generally is constant throughout the year, but goes up slightly in the summer.
An informal drive-by survey Tuesday afternoon showed 41 carts left on the streets, most on Loughborough Drive and Meadows Avenue. A middle-aged woman was seen leaving a cart at the curb on Loughborough Drive near R Street and walking into a nearby apartment. Nine carts were seen behind the Olivewood Shopping Center off Austin Avenue.
Mayor Ellie Wooten said she either calls Alexander Hall, the city's director of parks and community services, or store managers when she sees an abandoned cart. Last Monday, she saw 14 yellow, purple and red carts on Loughborough Drive between M and R streets.
"People know what they are doing is wrong when they take it," Wooten said. "Who's responsible for those carts? The store is. They should put up posts so the carts won't go through."
Saul Mejia, manager of the Rancho San Miguel market at Yosemite Park Way and Parsons Avenue, said 225 people a month take advantage of the store's offer to take them home between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. seven days a week, if they have spent at least $25 in the store. The patrons live in Merced, Planada and Le Grand areas.
Mejia said the store still loses carts to people who don't understand it's illegal to take them. One of the store's maintenance workers regularly retrieves 15 to 20 stray carts a week.
Alicia Rockwell, director of communications for Save Mart supermarkets in Modesto, said the cart retrieval service is highly effective in managing cart costs. Service specialists are trained to provide carryout service to every customer and are expected to bring the carts back with them.
Eric Gonzalez, manager of the Food 4 Less store at 1115 W. Olive Ave., said the store is trying to comply with the city's wishes. As required by the ordinance, it has signs posted inside the store and in the parking lot advising customers it's illegal to take the carts off the property.
Gonzalez had no dollar figure on his store's loss from shopping cart thefts. The store uses a cart retrieval service, and its own employees gather carts from the surrounding area each hour.
Jesse Robles, manager of the Walgreen's store at 3098 N. G St., said both his store and the Walgreen's at 1640 R St. use a perimeter security system with wheel locks on the carts. He said the system has "helped out quite a bit" and he hasn't had to buy new carts since it was installed.
Maria Tovar, an assistant manager at the 99 Cents Only store at 1111 W. Olive Ave., said one day the store will have 80 carts on hand, the next day just 40. She said it's a thorny problem, and store associates throughout the day are assigned to round up the carts from the area.
Former Merced mayor Hub Walsh said when the shopping cart ordinance was drafted, many people were calling him about seeing carts around town and wanted something done. The Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce and businesses supported the council's efforts to regulate the problem.
"It (abandoned shopping carts) conveys a negative message about our community," Walsh said. "It sure was an issue at that point."
McSwain, the code enforcement specialist, said he can't write citations when he sees somebody taking a cart. Only the police can do that, and if it's a choice between responding to a serious assault or an abandoned cart, the assault call would come first.
"I understand the plight of people who have no way to get their groceries home," McSwain said. "If stores would just take zero-tolerance on letting their carts off the lots, and if the stores and the city would work together in a proactive role, that's really the bottom line. That's the answer I'm looking for."
McSwain said store managers have been invited to next Tuesday's meeting of apartment managers at the police department's North Station on Loughborough Drive. He said he hopes store managers can tell the apartment managers about the problem, who can then urge their tenants not to take the carts.
In February, McSwain processed 44 "request for prosecution" forms with the City Attorney's Office involving carts. Stores were given 72 hours to pick up the carts, and all were removed by the time McSwain did a follow-up survey.
Lt. Roger McIntyre of the Merced Police Department said officers see carts all over town. Officers have written some citations and are encouraged to take the proper action when they see a violation taking place.
Hall, the city's parks director, said battling the cart problem is an ongoing process and a work in progress. The number of carts left on the streets spikes around paydays. Homeless people have gotten the message and are using makeshift baby strollers instead of shopping carts, he added.
Sarah Hansard lives on U Street between West 22nd and 23rd streets. Every day she sees people walking down her sidewalk pushing a full shopping cart.
"I don't ever recall seeing anybody going toward the store -- only away," Hansard said. "Take a walk down the Bear Creek bike path, and you are guaranteed to see shopping carts in the bottom of the creek. This is terribly dangerous, not to mention wasteful. The main area for cart clumps is tht apartment complex behind Target. You can see carts of all shapes, sizes and colors, just hanging out on the street."
City Manager Jim Marshall said state law prohibits the city from immediately picking up abandoned carts, eroding the city's ability to ease the problem.
"It's frustrating for citizens and us on the enforcement side," Marshall said. "I see it as a poor business decision on the part of stores not to proect their ownership of carts. It gives them (retailers) a black eye when they see the carts."
McSwain said those spotting abandoned shopping carts should call the code enforcement office at 209 385-6299 or call the stores themselves.
Tim James, manager of local government relations for the California Grocers Association, said stolen shopping carts pose a persistent problem for the grocery industry. The crime has many victims: The store has lost expensive property, neighborhoods wind up with unattractive nuisances and the cities themselves are burdened with enforcement.
"The challenge for the grocery industry is picking them up in a timely manner," James said. "Grocers work on a 1 to 2 percent profit margin. Carts cost anywhere from $100 to $150; the best thing is to get the cart back to the store as quickly as possible. Rather than blaming each other for something that doesn't work, we are looking at partnerships to work together to get on top of the problem."
City Council member Joe Cortez said the cart situation has improved little by little since the ordinance was enacted. He said shopping carts used to be all over town, and progress is being made.
Council member Michele Gabriault-Acosta said she wishes there were other alternatives to solve the problem. She said stores will get lax about picking carts up until the city contacts them.
Council member Bill Spriggs said he doesn't see as many stray carts since the ordinance, but said the problem remains. He wonders how stores can allow that kind of asset to wander away.
Council member John Carlisle said it's disturbing people don't respect others' property, and he remains mystified that businesses aren't concerned about losing something worth more than $100. He doesn't think cart retrieval services by themselves can take care of the problem.
For now, then, it seems some people will put the cart before remorse.
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.